Visiting Vet: Mushroom mayhem

They may not all be poisonous, but best to keep your dog away from them.

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Highly toxic mushrooms are rare on the Island, but some may cause illness. — Waldo Jaquith

It’s been a particularly soggy July. Everything’s damp. Even the dry laundry doesn’t feel dry. And let’s not talk about my hair. Know what likes this humid weather? Mushrooms. My yard is erupting with bushels of them. Know who eats wild mushrooms? Well, yes, certain human beings well-versed in mycology carefully identify and collect edible species for dinner, but I’m talking about less discriminating foragers. Dogs.

Some folks are blase when they call me. “My dog ate a mushroom yesterday. Should I do anything?” Um, it’s a little late now. But glad he’s alive and feeling fine. Others panic. “We raced to the ferry as soon as we pulled the mushroom out his mouth. Can you get us on the next boat?” Um, no. There are better things to do than just heading off-Island.

Mushrooms. They come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. Gilled mushrooms, tube mushrooms, pore or bracket fungi, teeth fungi, and puffballs. Coral fungi, jelly fungi, flask fungi, and cup fungi. I love their names. Showy Flamecap, Red Pimply Fungus, Old Man of the Woods, Delicious Lactarius, Stinkhorn, Witches’ Butter, Big Laughing Mushroom. Although wild mushrooms come in many delicious varieties, there is also a wealth of deadly varieties like the Amanita species, particularly Amanita phalloides, with names like Destroying Angel and Death Cup.

So how do you know which fungi in the forest are dangerous to your mushroom-eating mutt Morel? You don’t. There are folktales about how to differentiate poisonous from nonpoisonous. “It’s safe to eat if it doesn’t tarnish a silver spoon.” “It’s edible if it peels easily.” Don’t believe these. Instead, believe such cautionary adages as “If it’s reddish, you might be deadish” and  “There are old mushroom hunters, and bold mushroom hunters, but there are no old, bold mushroom hunters.” The good news for dog owners, however, is that truly lethal mushrooms are rare on the Vineyard.

Since my expertise is limited to telling shiitakes from portobellos, I asked naturalist Matt Pelikan about the prevalence of toxic mushrooms on the Island. Matt says he has never seen the deadly Death Cup (Amanita phalloides) here, but  adds self-deprecatingly “which doesn’t mean much ‘cuz I’m not great with mushrooms. Amanita  is a really difficult genus to ID precisely (even harder than mushrooms generally, which is really saying something!). While I know of no evidence that phalloides occurs here, it might, and even if it doesn’t, there are other highly toxic members of the genus that do occur here. The most toxic ones, however, do not appear to be common.” So most of our backyard mushrooms are not deadly. They may, however, still occasionally cause significant illness with vomiting, diarrhea, depression, and excessive  urination and salivation. Some mushrooms with psychotropic properties can cause restlessness,  anxiety, hallucinations, disorientation, even seizures..

The dangerous Amanita species account for the majority of mushroom-related fatalities nationally in both people and dogs. Not only is it hard to identify but clinical symptoms may not develop for 10 to 12 hours after ingestion. It begins with abdominal pain, profuse bloody diarrhea, vomiting, dehydration, elevated heart rate and blood sugar. Morel the mutt may feel better for a day or two but will eventually go into liver failure, with jaundice, sepsis, and clotting problems leading to hemorrhage. There is little known effective treatment and ingestion of any significant quantity is almost always fatal. Children and pets are more susceptible than adult humans due to their smaller size. People who survive often need emergency liver transplants. Dogs usually die within a week.

Now calm yourselves. In 40 years of practice here, to the best of my knowledge I have never seen a lethal case of mushroom ingestion despite getting calls about dogs eating mushrooms all the time. I have seen a handful of cases of gastrointestinal upset, and a few neurological reactions. Happily all these pups recovered with just basic supportive care and tincture of time. Matt Pelikan agrees with me about the overall picture on the Vineyard. “Only a few mushrooms are highly toxic, with the vast majority of species either harmless or likely to cause GI upset at the worst . . . Toxic mushroom ingestion is a genuine risk, but it’s probably one that people dramatically overestimate, reasonably enough, since the consequences of hitting a bad one can be great.”

Obviously, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure . . . especially when there is no cure. Remove mushrooms from your yard. Get rid of material that mushrooms like to grow in, like rotting mulch and old tree stumps. When out on nature walks, pay attention. Give Morel a stick to carry or a ball to keep his mouth busy. If despite all precautions, Morel munches a mushroom, take it seriously but don’t panic. Not every wild mushroom is poisonous, and not every poisonous mushroom is deadly, but until proven otherwise by an expert mycologist, any wild ‘shroom could theoretically be dangerous. Try to get the mushroom away from him. I used to suggest collecting a sample for identification but realistically, it’s pretty unlikely you’re going to find someone to ID that mushroom quickly. Call one of the animal poison control hotlines or  your veterinarian ASAP and discuss how to induce vomiting. It may also be recommended to give Morel a dose of activated charcoal to lessen absorption of any remaining toxin. In the rare event that he develops clinical signs, additional treatment may be warranted, or even referral to an emergency clinic off Island for hospitalization.

All that said, three people called me this week about dogs eating mushrooms. One called me way too late to do anything. Dog is fine. One induced vomiting at home following my instructions. Dog is fine. One couple called from standby in Vineyard Haven thinking they needed to rush to the specialists in Bourne. I told them to get out of line, go home, and induce vomiting following my instructions. Dog is fine. OK. I’m done. Dinner time. Think I’ll order pizza . . . with pepperoni . . .  and mushrooms.